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Why shopping malls of the future can't ignore the important curation of art and design

More than just retail therapy

Tokyo's new shopping mall, Ginza Six, enlists Mori Art Museum's Fumio Nanjo and interior designer Gwenael Nicolas to create a retail experience like no other

It's no secret that Tokyo is a shopping destination that keeps on giving. From the quiet alleys that wind around hip cafes and indie boutiques in Cat Street to the tourist haven of Harajuku with its streetwear cred, retail therapy seekers check in month after month and year after year. In the third quarter of last year, Straits Times reported that tourist dollars amounted to 971.1 billion yen, while Japan Times reported tourist figures of 2016 totalling to 24.03 million. These foreign dollars find their way to the cash registers of Tokyo's diverse retail make-up, whether stocking on pantry supplies at Tsukiji fish market, collecting the latest art zines at Daikayama T-site or nabbing capsule designer pieces within these shopping complexes' storied architectural facades.

One such exclusivity debuted last month within a unique façade inspired by white sails aligning Chuo-dori avenue, Ginza's main shopping street. In a creative accompaniment to Tokyo's most talked-about retail debut, Ginza Six, Dior's creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri took the opportunity to reveal eight new looks in a wearable love letter to Japan, inspired by Christian Dior's 1953 collection designed with cherry blossoms. Dior was just one of 10 LVMH Maisons making their entrance in the 13-storey, retail mammoth of a building. On the same street, luxury meccas such as Celine, Saint Laurent and Fendi stand tall, with the latter's scalloped entrance luring discerning shoppers who are attracted to something even more than the Italian house's material spoils.

Ginza Six
It's this affinity with design that makes Ginza Six's retail experience ever so exquisite. Understanding the importance of touchpoints such as art and design, Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi was roped in with Kajima Corporation to construct this 360-degree lifestyle complex. Believing that "architecture should be a medium that allows the subject to shine", Taniguchi's design is perceived as simple to the naked eye. But as shoppers journey around and in the building, they'll realise that the architect — who redesigned MoMA New York in 2004 — has cleverly planned pathways and a floating garden for traffic from Chuo-dori and Mihara-dori to convene in a green space. Traditional Japanese motifs such as eaves and shop curtains planted in the façade welcome the changing seasons that are present in the individual stores. 

The artists mirroring contemporary Japan

But to fully comprehend what Ginza Six stands for, one must understand Ginza. "Ginza is one of the oldest commercial areas and it was the centre of Edo," informed Fumio Nanjo, director of Mori Art Museum. "So if a new shopping mall comes into that area, it has to represent not just Japanese commercial sectors, but also Japanese contemporary culture." Founded in 2003, Mori Art Museum at Roppongi Hills is Tokyo's humbler version of MoMA and Tate. Curating art pieces throughout Ginza Six, Nanjo was tasked to mirror the capital's artistic identity away from the white cube.

The director isn't entirely new to alternative art spaces — as artistic director of Singapore Biennale in 2006 and 2008, he commissioned artwork in temples and churches. "When I think about artworks to put outside of a white cube, I think about the historical and cultural meaning of the building, as well as the physical context," Nanjo explained on his process. "The artist must be internationally well-known and the work must be charming."

'Living Canyon' by Patrick Blanc
And what a charmer Ginza Six's most prominent artwork is. Suspended from the central open ceiling, 14 red and white polka dotted pumpkin balloons identify one of Japan's oldest masters of contemporary art: Yayoi Kusama. Symbolising good luck and Japan's national flag, the white and red colours differ from Kusama's yellow pumpkins. Elsewhere, Nanjo commissioned nature-themed works to complement the artificial environment of a shopping mall. teamLab's digital waterfall, 'Universe of Water Particles on the Living Wall' (Liv Tyler's a fan) and Patrick Blanc's 'Living Canyon' provide tired eyes a refuge with the earlier's soothing patterns and the latter's display of native Japanese plants. Within material expectations and commercial gains, Misa Funai's 'Paradise and Boundaries' ensure that you remain the central character in a mirrored, fictional world whirling with birds of paradise. Technology, media and bio art marry Japan's new generation of artists with an oldie-but-goodie like Kusama. 

Yayoi Kusama Ginza Six

Creating a vortex of energy in Ginza

"In Tokyo, it's not strange to see someone in a kimono with a Borsalino hat," lamented interior designer Gwenael Nicolas as he sat at the top floor of his office, which is nestled in the up-and-coming Tomigaya hood of Shibuya. The Frenchman co-founded Curiosity Inc. 20 years ago and is comfortable designing products such as perfume dispensers and shops such as the Fendi Avenue Montaigne in Paris. Ginza Six is his first shopping mall project. In charge of creating an identity that unites 241 stores in a 47,000 square metre space, Nicolas shared that he didn't get the gig based on just presenting an architectural project.

"I created an identity for the space," summed the designer. "Japan has a culture of living on the edge...with the earthquake, the tsunami and everything. But on the other side, we don't try to keep everything static. It's very strange, you should feel like everything stops, but it's the opposite. As a creator, it's a perfect canvas to create. It's always moving forward."

It's this motion of moving upwards and onwards that is seen in Ginza Six's central atrium. Seeing the shopping mall as the core of Ginza, Nicolas envisioned a vortex and sense of energy that spirals up, connecting all the floors with the escalators. "You feel like your brain is spinning, and you want to go up," he gushed. As shoppers make their way around, they'll notice narrow alleyways that evoke a village-like vibe you can still experience in Ginza. Trademarks of Japanese craftsmanship are seen in the lighting effects of shoji screens, as well as the 30 types of washi paper Nicolas had sourced and used throughout the mall. 

Ginza Six

The identity of Ginza Six is undoubtedly inspired by the past in its curation of art and design, but it still feels new. "If you present only revolution, you are freaking people out," explained Nicolas. "If you present evolution, you don't go anywhere. So I always present both in parallel." Individual stores in Ginza Six rose to the ambitious occasion of presenting some new, yet grounded. Manolo Blahnik's store — designed by Nick Leith-Smith ­— is dominated by wooden structures that reference traditional Japanese construction and walls decorated in a ginkgo leaf design. The Chanel beauty boutique presented its first electronic lipstick dispenser, while the Starbucks Reserve Bar presents Japan's first that features a nitro cold-brew.

When asked on whether he finds parallels in the way Japanese and French creatives work, Nicolas notes of their shared emphasis on perfection and completion. But in Japan, he's learned something beyond that. "Coming here, there's something beyond perfection: Excellence," he said. "You create something which you have to be able to twist to reveal excellence."

Teamlab Ginza Six

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  • Image: Yayoi Kusama, Kozo Takayama, Ginza Six

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